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Mental evaluation ordered for Philly bomb suspect

A bomb was found in this mailbox in Philadelphia, but detonated without hurting anyone as bomb squad members worked to defuse it.
A bomb was found in this mailbox in Philadelphia, but detonated without hurting anyone as bomb squad members worked to defuse it.  

PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania (CNN) -- A federal judge in Philadelphia ordered a competency evaluation Thursday of Preston H. Lit, the 53-year-old Philadelphia man arrested on federal charges in connection with mailbomb scares.

Federal prosecutors requested the evaluation at an initial court appearance before Judge James Melinson. Lit's attorney did not object, saying that his client had a "significant mental history."

Lit, wearing a white T-shirt and baggy black pants, was brought into court wearing handcuffs, which were taken off for the proceedings. He was not wearing a belt or shoes.

Lit said he wanted his own attorneys to represent him, but seemed confused when Melinson asked who they were.

When asked if his attorneys knew he was in court, Lit replied "They have TVs in their office. They were watching 9/11 when it happened."

Philadelphia officials say they have arrested a suspect in connection with two packages, one a bomb, found in or near mailboxes. CNN's Bob Franken reports (May 16)

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Melinson appointed a federal public defender to represent Lit in Thursday's hearing after meeting with his sisters and the attorneys.

His next court appearance is scheduled for Tuesday.

Lit's parents said their son was diagnosed 12 years ago with a bipolar mental condition and has been in and out of mental institutions and jails since. Also, the suspect is known to the Secret Service because of a "rambling" letter he sent to then-President George H.W. Bush in 1991, a law enforcement source told CNN.

'Free Palestine' message

Lit was charged with threatening to use explosive devices, relating to items found at mailboxes in Northeast Philadelphia on Monday and Tuesday, the FBI said. But FBI Special Agent in Charge Jeffrey Lampinski said, "We have found no credible evidence to link" Lit to terrorist groups and "certainly not to al Qaeda."

A package found in a northeast Philadelphia mailbox on Monday detonated as authorities tried to defuse it. No one was wounded in the blast. A message attached to the bomb said "Free Palestine" and mentioned al Qaeda.

A suspicious item found near a mailbox Tuesday, along with a message that said "Free Palestine," was initially treated as a possible bomb, but turned out to be sneakers.

Lampinski said the FBI brought in two bloodhounds from California that helped them find the suspect. The dogs took a human scent off fragments of the device that exploded and tracked that scent from the mailbox where it was found to the building where Lit lived.

Lit was arrested Wednesday soon after he was accused of dumping trash in a neighbor's yard. A local bomb squad and FBI agents searched his home Wednesday night.

In an affidavit filed in the U.S. District Court Thursday, authorities said they found styrofoam of the kind used in the bomb that detonated Monday, markers of the color matching the markers used in the notes, and nails and screws similar to those used in the device.

'Patriotic individual'

bomb squad
A bomb squad member examines a suspicious package Tuesday that ended up being a box with sneakers.  

Meanwhile, Eugene and Rita Lit, who live in Boynton Beach, Florida, compared the condition of their son to that of John Nash, the schizophrenic Princeton University mathematician portrayed in the movie "A Beautiful Mind."

The Lits said their son has not been on his medication for six months because of side effects, which included tremors and diarrhea. Even when he was on the medication, he still developed symptoms of his mental illness, they said.

Lit's father said his son served in the armed forces and is "a patriotic individual."

"I can't believe he's involved in something like this," the father said.

Lampinski said he couldn't elaborate on Lit's motives, but he speculated that the actions he is accused of "could well be a copycat event."

Postal sources told CNN handwriting on material dumped in the neighbor's yard Wednesday matched three letters found in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the state capital. Two were addressed to President Bush and one to Pennsylvania Gov. Mark Schweiker. The return address on the three letters was "Royal al Qaeda Headquarters," sources said.

The Secret Service has the letters to the president, and the FBI has the letter to the governor, the sources said.

A law enforcement source with knowledge of the investigation said evidence seized in connection with the case includes at least two postcards addressed to Bush and "possibly a letter or package as well." Another law enforcement source said the suspect was "of record" with the Secret Service because of an incident back in 1991 in which he sent a rambling letter to then-President Bush.

Lit was taken into custody as part of a joint investigation involving the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Philadelphia Police Department and postal inspectors.

Authorities were tipped off by a neighbor who reported seeing a 1991 four-door Buick Regal in the area of one of the suspicious packages and gave the license plate number to authorities.

Lit had been arrested and released Tuesday night in Oley, Pennsylvania, near Reading, where he was questioned about outstanding warrants from Florida, sources said. Lampinski said that was before the alert went out on him in connection with the Philadelphia bomb.

According to a criminal history released by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Lit had at least two arrests in Florida, in 1992 and 1993, stemming from attempts to elude police, for which he faced a variety of felony and misdemeanor charges.

The ultimate disposition of the charges appears unclear, although the FDLE data showed that several of the charges were dismissed because Lit was mentally unable to stand trial.

Authorities also said Lit had other previous run-ins with the law, including stalking a local TV personality in Philadelphia and trying to run over a security guard outside the television station.

CNN Correspondents Jeanne Meserve and John King contributed to this report




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